Flexible Grading Strategies for Blended Learning
It’s time to reconsider what you’ve always done.
Here’s a direct quote from a high school principal in my area to his staff regarding upcoming semester final exams in a Hybrid Education environment: “Take your normal folder of crap and throw it out. Can’t do what you have always done.” Now, that may be a slightly inelegant way to put it, but it doesn’t make it any less true. In a blended learning environment, you can’t—and, more importantly, you don’t have to—do what you’ve always done, especially in the age of COVID-19. You can and should be more flexible in your grading strategies.
An end to traditional percentage-based grading
Chances are, like me, you experienced a percentage-based grade scale at some point in your academic career, if only at the secondary level. Within the last decade or so, reformers like Thomas Guskey have rightly pointed out the significant flaws of the percentage-based grading system, including—but not limited to—what is presumably the whole point of assessment in the first place: being able to accurately assess what students know, understand, or can do.
In a blended classroom, students might be working on different things at different times, which renders a traditional grading system unwieldy and less meaningful as a standards-based approach. For example, a teacher at my school uses in-class time to work with students on various video production projects. Students joining remotely typically work on assignments that are more conducive to live collaboration on the school’s learning management system (LMS), such as writing scripts, composing treatments, or creating storyboards. What omnibus grade truly reflects what they are doing and have learned?
If you can’t muster the political will to end the percentage-based grade scale altogether, you might be able to at least modify it to be more student-centered. For example, you could establish a “grading floor” of 50 or 60 percent, require rubrics that define performance levels, and implement more authentic assessment systems over traditional summative tests. After all, in a traditional percentage-based grade scale, the fact that we give kids 60 ways to fail and only 40 ways to succeed is now an old chestnut. We can do better.
During blended learning, and especially during the remote part of most Hybrid Education plans, if a student or his or her family struggles with technology, access, motivation, or any number of other factors, not compensating for those factors on the back end can lead more students and families to simply give up altogether. Find ways to combat this through grade scale and other assessment modifications that address all key stakeholders’ needs —especially students.
The Three R’s
Eschewing the traditional (and grammatically incorrect) “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic” mantra of our youth, one Edutopia blog post extolled the virtue of redos, retakes, and reflection. As the post points out, you don’t have to present these options as unlimited or without some leg work on the part of the student. Instead, you can allow for redos and retakes as a flexible way to put the focus back where it belongs—on learning and mastery—and not just on the grade.
In blended learning, it’s even more critical to break the traditional “teach, test, and move on” pattern. Students may also have more asynchronous time available to prepare for meaningful retakes, depending on how you’ve organized your schedule. Add a critical reflective component to the mix—one that emphasizes self-study, extra support, and goal setting with the teacher—and you have a potentially powerful and flexible way to implement a grading strategy that will help your students learn more.
Hybrid Learning, Hybrid Grading
Why not consider a hybrid grading system for your hybrid learning program? This could take any number of forms.
The Bismarck Public School District in North Dakota includes both a standards-based grade and a traditional letter grade on their eighth-grade report cards to provide families with a complete picture of student progress and to better prepare students for a more traditional high school grading system. They also include “Respect and Responsibility” scores that do not count toward academics but are reported to families to help “track and encourage student behaviors that impact academic achievement.”
At the classroom level, you could create a hybrid system of teacher and student assigned grades. After all, students are often their own harshest critics. One English teacher I observed last month was teaching a unit on the Transcendentalists. The culminating project was almost entirely driven by student voice and choice and permitted students to grade themselves based on transcendentalist philosophy. For example, to assign themselves an A, students had to reflect and agree with statements such as “You have transcended yourself and surpassed your everyday expectations of your skills and talents” and assign points to themselves accordingly. The teacher tells me that many students reflect deeply on this process and are fair in assessing their own learning and growth, both as students and as human beings. What a breath of fresh grading air, especially in a pandemic! I think Ralph Waldo Emerson would approve.
Authentic Assessment Only
Early this year, a teacher approached me and told me that they were struggling with the continued use of traditional summative assessment in our hybrid learning environment. We looked at each other and almost laughed simultaneously because we both knew the answer. Who needs all this traditional assessment in a blended learning format? Not us, and definitely not the kids. This is a perfect opportunity to ditch some—or all—of the traditional multiple-choice tests that have come to define so much summative assessment, particularly at the secondary level.
The teacher who approached me started small—allowing notes and other materials during summative assessment opportunities. He then ditched some summative assessments altogether in favor of portfolios that students construct throughout the year. These include artifacts of learning that go beyond one-shot tests, like graphic organizers and project rubrics. I’m hoping he takes it a step further through authentic performance tasks and 21st-century skills, such as podcasts or digital mash-ups, that can be part of a digital portfolio summative assessment housed in the LMS.
Flexibility is Key
When you think about it, blended learning is so promising— and possibly frustrating at first— because of its inherent flexibility. In response, we need to continue to be flexible, too, especially concerning the assessment of student learning. COVID-19 is a significant plot twist, but it may also present a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to break the mold of traditional assessment toward more flexible grading systems for all.